Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell) is having that dream again, the one where he's escaping from a platoon of military robots with a beautiful woman (Jessica Biel) by his side, except he doesn't even know her name, nor why she is so intent on saving him. She nearly does it, too, as they try to escape down a shaft but the robots grab Quaid with their tractor beam and fire off a shot that goes through the couple's held hands, breaking their contact and dragging him into the enemy's clutches. On waking, he realises that he's still in bed with his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale), and has to get up for work...
Remaking a beloved sci-fi action movie from Arnold Schwarzenegger's heyday was always going to be a tricky proposition, yet presumably it was that recognition factor which convinced the studio it was a worthwhile project: if nothing else, the fans of the original would seek this out from curiosity alone. Although there were a few nods to the Paul Verhoeven film in matters of plot and, er, the triple-breasted woman (because it's not a Total Recall party without her, one assumes), there were as many differences to leave director Len Wiseman's reimagining as a standalone film in its own right.
On the other hand, a movie like that 1990 favourite was so indelibly imprinted on the cultural consciousness that you would wish the makers of this good luck, but tell them they'd have to face it, everyone would be making comparisons. The basic premise was intact: Douglas Quaid wants a better life than the work, eat, sleep one he has at the moment, so heads over to a service where he can have memories implanted into his mind that will have him believe he has enjoyed a life as a secret agent. But uh-oh, once in the chair something seems to go wrong, and it turns out he really is a secret agent whose memory was wiped, or is that what someone pulling the strings wants him to think? And so on.
That uncertainty, that plastic reality, was better served in the original where more justice was done to the Philip K. Dick concepts, this time around no one appeared to be very interested in the science fiction when they could pack the movie to the rafters with action and adventure. So any wild ideas were treated oddly matter of factly rather than to contribute wackiness to what could easily have been a straight forward spy story set not in the future but in the present: Quaid's choice of reading a James Bond novel was no coincidence. Join that to a drab dystopia where the government opt to keep the surviving citizens downtrodden in the U.K. and Australia and the excitement levels were muted.
Even with both those territories linked by a tunnel through the Earth's core, apparently just an excuse for a tussle in zero gravity rather than anything thought through with proper physics. With the perpetually confused Quaid going from pillar to post as he tries to fathom what his possible origins were and what's expected of him now, he has to fight off his now homicidal wife (cue Kate breaking out the combat skills once again) and think about romancing Biel's mystery woman who saves his skin during yet another chase sequence. Actually, instead of worrying over the convolutions of a world where the hero cannot understand what is happening, the film channelled this mental hostility into musings over what makes a man take up arms and become a terrorist, which was potentially more provocative. Or it would have been except it was couched in simplistic terms, as if the whole freedom fighter angle was uneasy if analysed too far. Music by Harry Gregson-Williams.